The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 9 The Social Factor in Perception

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THE experience within which the intelligence of human society expresses itself is a world of physical things. It is also a perceptual world. The thing and the percept bring out two characters of this experience. The percept marks the experience as a perspective. The characters of a perceptual world are dependent upon the susceptibilities and attitudes of the individuals who make up human society. The physical thing marks the experience as an organization of perspectives. So far as the thing is in experience it lies in the perspective of an individual, but if it is a thing it may lie in the perspectives of other individuals as well. The perspectives, however, are not separate from or independent of one another. The thing which an individual perceives is or may be perceived by others who are fortunately located spatio-temporally and similarly endowed. The individual perceives the thing which the others perceive. Both the thing and the perception have this generalized character. It is within this organization of perspectives that criticism, doubt, and adjustment take place. One does not criticize one's own perspective because of a reported disagreement of this perspective with that of another or others. The disagreement, the doubt, and the error break out within a world which is common, but which still exhibits features which are in conflict with its universality. These features, then, come to belong to individual perspectives. Thus in experience the individual perspectives arise out of a common perspective. The common perspective is not built up out of individual perspectives. The identical penny of experience is not a compound of all the varying shapes of different perspectives. On the contrary these contours are differing and in some sense contradictory shapes of an identical penny. This commonplace, that there is

(141) no doubt except in a world whose universality justifies that doubt and tests the solution of the doubt, seems to be at odds with the genetic account of the development of a world of common experience out of the experiences of the individuals who make up the commonalty, or society.

The solution that I am suggesting involves, first, the fundamental character of sense perception as that of a distant object. I am affirming this in a behavioristic sense. Sense perception is an outgrowth of the behavior by which organisms relate themselves to what is spatio-temporally away from them. This relation is a form of conduct that leads the organism toward or farther away from the object according as the act predicates contact or the absence of contact. Contact in the positive or negative sense is the outcome of the act that lies at the beginning of sense perception. This outcome results normally in an experience which is both distance experience and contact experience. In our typical sense perception we see what we handle. There is, then, a certain area implied in sense perception, within which contact, the immediate outcome of the act, takes place, while we still see it, or have distance experience of it. It is a mediate area, for consummation lies beyond it-for example, eating, rest, or warmth. I will call it the manipulatory area, for physical things are plainly things that we handle, but the handling is normally under the control of vision. Contact is the test of the success of the act and decides whether we are subject to error or illusion. The thing is there if we have or could have contact with it. Otherwise it is hallucinatory.

Sense perception thus interpreted belongs to organisms that have hands and handle things in completing their acts. It implies further an arresting of the act in this manipulatory area and the reference of both earlier and later experiences to that of this area. It is the object of possible contact that we see at a distance, and it is such a physical thing that we later enjoy. The substantial reality of our perceptual world lies in this area of manipulation and its extensions, and the other characters of things inhere in this substantial reality. We have indeed many

(142) illusive perceptions, such as many sounds and odors which we enjoy without definitely referring them to physical things located in certain areas, but we do not exhaust the demand for the reality of these experiences unless we can so refer them. This area, as I have remarked above., lies short of the completion of the act, its consummation.

The essentials of perception lie not in the organization of various so-called sensa, or merely in "conveying" one sensory content by another, but in this definite reference of distance experience of the object to the mediate contact experience of this area, the distance experience being that of which the contact experience is the perceptual reality; and in the reference of later experiences in the way of consummation or further implementation back to the physical thing, i.e., the perceptual object in this manipulatory area, where it is at once an object of distance and contact experience. The term "reference" which 1 have here employed, does not necessarily imply reflection, the so-called judgments of perception. The reference simply involves the direction of the act toward its mediate completion in the contact processes of manipulation. Fully realized existence of the perceptual object belongs to this field. It is of importance to recognize that it is not the character of tactual or contact experience in itself that carries with it perceptual reality. It is the successful completion of this portion of the act initiated by the distance experience that gives reality to the physical thing in the manipulatory area. Physical contacts with currents of air may be distance experiences of objects away from us. It is also of importance to recognize that perceptual reality is a mediate field within the entire complex act. The possession, enjoyment, or suffering of physical things is over and above their physical existence. Their physical existence is the condition of the final consummation of the act, especially of further mediatory processes which lead to the consummations of existence.

The second implication of the physical thing indicated above was its arrest of the act. It is picking the fruit to eat it. While we hold the fruit and prepare it for the table, the process of

(143) consumption is Postponed, but we have selected those characters which are irrelevant to the passage involved in the ongoing act of consumption. So we speak of the fruit as existing throughout the whole process. In the experience of lower forms which have no such manipulatory area there is no reason to believe that there is any permanent world which is irrelevant to passage. They must live in a Minkowski world where all stimuli are spatio-temporally away from them.

There are experiences of our own in which the interest is so centered on the temporal distance of the stimulus that it hardly appears as an object that exists simultaneously with ourselves in the manipulatory area, e.g., when we are straining to grasp a passing something, when in falling over a cliff one strives to get hold of the stem of a sapling. There is no reality now. It all lies spatio-temporally ahead of us. The simultaneity of things belongs only to that situation in which competing responses inhibit one another and throw into relief those characters that are irrelevant to passage and thus remain permanent conditions of alternative possible reactions. The mere inhibition, however, would not be sufficient to throw these characters into relief. Their irrelevance to passage must be of importance to the organism, must have become the condition of further conduct, before these characters can stand out and become the enduring environment.

This enduring environment has as its center the manipulatory area in which is found the unquestioned physical thing. It is seen, and that which is seen has been realized in contact. The contact, however, is not simply a pressure, not simply a hardness or roughness. It is primarily a resistance. The contact experience that constitutes the reality of the physical thing comes from the inside of the thing, and it comes from an inside that can never be reached by subdividing the thing. This reveals simply new surfaces. It is an inside that springs from the co-operation of physical things with ourselves in our acts. We are seeking the sort of resistance that we ourselves offer in grasping and manipulating things. We seek support, leverage, and

(144) assistance. The mediate act is completed in the resistance of the thing. It is the sort of resistance which one hand offers to the other. The inside of the thing is the same stuff as the inside of the organism. It would , however, be a mistake to assume that the organism projects this content into the object in the manipulatory area, for in the first place the organism is but another perceptual object, and in the second place there is no indication of any place in the act in which such a projection would appear.

I am going on the assumption that action is distinguishable from motion and that the identification of it with the sensation of muscle strain is a later interpretation, valuable for the purposes of the reflective control of conduct, but deceptive if it implies that action is there as a sensation or consciousness of an effort. In the simplest situation the organism is there acting or in action, and the characters of stimuli are there. Consciousness of action and of the characters in experience is a later reflective type of experience that implies that action, and these characters are there in advance of the so-called consciousness of them. Now what we mean by an inside as distinguished from that which can be revealed by removing something spatially exterior, which then becomes an outside, is action as it is going on, i.e., action discriminated from motion. Action proceeds from something, arises out of something. Otherwise it can be identified with change and ceases to be action with this implication of an inside that can never become an outside.

Resistance is action. It is not pressure as a so-called surface experience or any other surface experience. Physical things resist our action. This action of things gets into our experience, into our perspective, as the inside of perceptual things, and these perceptual things in the perceptual environment serve to define the organism as a perceptual thing. A perceptual thing is a combination of at least two characters, a distance character which leads movement toward or away from it and the contact experience which results. This contact experience includes its inside. If the organism is a perceptual object for the organism

(145) as a whole, there must have been some phase of the act which was located outside the organism, from which position the organism could be a perceptual object. It is important to recognize that the insideness of the organism's activity could not be placed within the organism as a perceptual object until the act had placed the organism over against some outer position. Now the action of, say, an implement in the hand does place the hand and the organism of which it is a part over against the implement. What the implement does in the co-operative process serves to place the hand and the organism as a whole as one of the perceptual objects in the field. It is impossible to start off with the organism as an object and project its contents into other perceptual objects. The organism becomes a perceptual object only after the act is in some sense located outside the organism. This is, of course, the basis for reflective activity, in which the organism becomes an object to itself. Resistance as an activity is a fundamental character which is common to all physical objects, including the organism. From the standpoint of the resistance of physical things we resist them, but it is still necessary to describe an act originating in the organism that can be so located outside the organism so that the organism can become an object.

The resistance which is the matter of the perceptual object is an abstraction which has been rendered definite and dominant by the concepts of mass and inertia in modern physical science. The objects in the manipulatory area (in the widest sense of the term, our implements, those things by which we maintain our balance and through whose resistance we move and which we utilize for ulterior purposes) have in immediate experience the values which their uses predicate. It is only by an abstraction that we get down to their matter The reason for the dominance of this abstraction is that we find that we can control the other implemental values through the concentration on the matter c the perceptual object. The knife still cuts, but it is its molecular structure that assures us of the cutting edge. The rose is fragrant, but the statement of the fragrance in terms of ethers en-

(146) -ables us to manufacture perfumes. For the same and like purposes we state the organism in molecular and atomic terms. The animal in which the act originates is not yet the material organism which in its own conduct exists over against other material things. It is a stimulus to other animals to seize and devour it, or to avoid it, or to woo it, or to suckle it. These stimuli are spatio-temporally separated from the animal they excite. They have as yet no existence present as objects for the animal. To assume such present existence, they must assume the "now" that belongs to the manipulatory area of the animal. If the act of the animal with reference to the second animal calls out a response in the second animal, such as flight or an answering cry, these responses become important stimuli in the continuation of the act. If they are cries, they are responses which the animal may excite in itself. If the response of the second animal which the first animal has excited in itself develops into a complete attitude, as in the play of little children, two results may appear. The result of one's own act may be given in terms of a now, and with this appearance of the other as an object the individual would also appear as an object, from that assumed point of view of the other. It is important to recognize that the mere appearance of imagery from past experience would not give a "now." Supposing it to be attached to the stimulus, it would have the same spatiotemporal distance as that of the stimulus. To reach a "now," the result of the act must be present as a part of the activity which excites it. It is this which renders resistance of so fundamental importance. The resistance of the thing we are about to seize can be excited in the individual who will grasp it, but the attitude must have been assumed before either the thing or the organism can appear as an object.

The assimilation of time to space, and the disappearance of any absolute time and space, carries us back to a situation of the passage of events in a space-time in which there are intersections of different time systems that give rise to passing repeating geometrical structures, whose points are historical

(147) routes, and in which there is no permanent space and, hence, no motion, until relation to a percipient or prehensive event gives rise to a consentient set, or a perspective; the same analysis carries us back to an experience in which animals live in a Minkowski space-time, related only to spatiotemporally distant stimuli. The unity of the act is there, but it is a unity that is attained only in the completion of the act. It is not given in a permanent space, abstracted from passage, until the "now" of the ongoing process in the animal becomes identified with the spatiotemporally distant stimulus through acts of identifying itself with the stimulus, thus enabling the stimulus to share in the resistance which is the reality of the percept in the manipulatory area. In the manipulatory area both the distance promise and the resistance contact fulfilment unite in a percept, but the percept does not become an object except in a situation within which the organism is also an object. It is this involvement of the organism in the perceptual situation as an object which we denominate as consciousness, i.e., consciousness as awareness. It is, however, not a consciousness of, an awareness of, except at a later stage. In so-called immediate experience the object is simply there, but its being there carries with it the individual's being there, not as experiencing the object but as a perceptual object essential to the situation.

The original biological act is one that goes through to its consummation and has within it, at least in lower animal forms, no perceptual world of physical things. It is a world of stimuli and responses, a Minkowski world. Physical things are implemental and find their perceptual reality in manipulatory experiences which lead on to consummations. They involve the stoppage of the act and an appearance of a field that is irrelevant to passage in which alternative completions of the act may take place. The act, then, is antecedent to the appearance of think and of the organism as objects. It is illegitimate to place this original act within the organic individual as an object. The mediate acts that spring from our organisms take place in a permanent space that is abstracted from passage and go on in

(148) time. As individuals or selves we are never at the beginning of our acts but carry them on in relative spaces and times by the use of physical means and so-called reflective intelligence. To reach a present experience that takes on the form of a present, a "now," which contains the distance stimuli, a number of conditions must be met. In the first place, the act itself must be inhibited. This can take place if alternative processes of carrying out the act arise in the organism. In the second place, there must be a stuff of experience of which this present can consist, which is irrelevant to passage not only because of the repetition of an identical pattern but also because it belongs to the same phase of the act in the various alternative completions of the act. It must be functionally identical if the present is to contain different alternative present possibilities. This can be found in the organism's contact experience of things which serve as means to final consummations. In the third place, that it may be a "now," i.e., have a temporal character identical with the organism, it must be content that does not simply attach itself to the distance stimulus and take on its temporal character, but it must be something that the organism calls out in itself, so that it has the temporal character of the organism. This can be attained if the organism excites itself to respond to itself as the distant stimulus would respond to it if it were at the completion of the act, i.e., were in contact with it. The theory of the subjectivity of secondary qualities exactly reverses the actual situation. The distance characters of stimuli are spatiotemporally away from the organism; but, if the resistance of things, their inner matter, is to be dated simultaneously with the organism, this resistance must be excited in the organism, and thus wrench temporally distant stimuli characters out of their futurity. This accords with developed judgments of perception. The visual and auditory stimuli are simply out there. Their physical reality is a hypothetical content springing from organic reactions and awaiting justification in actual contact. The organism spreads out its manipulatory area into an existent present by reacting to itself in the roles of the distant stimulus.


In denying the presence of physical objects in the perspectives of organisms which have no manipulatory area, I do not imply that changes including motions are not present in such perspectives as wholes. In our own consummatory experience of a melody, in which reference to a physical object is very vague though not entirely absent, the whole is essential to its parts as parts of a melody. Nor do I imply that the sensuous distance character is not yet in the experience of the animal in the sense that the future contact is not yet there) i.e., from the standpoint of the observer. I mean that there is no "now" by which it can be dated with the organism. There is no experience of simultaneity. The whole action is ahead and places the color or sound in the constantly emerging future.

There are two characteristics of perceptual experience which I have already indicated, but which I wish to again emphasize. The first of these is that perception of physical things presupposes an act that is already going on in advance of perception and is a process within which perception lies; that perception implies an inhibition of this process of movement toward or away from a distant stimulus, an inhibition that arises from the presence in the organism of alternative completions of the act; and that these tendencies are under the control of what I have termed terminal attitudes, i.e., the already excited adjustment of the organism to the contact response to the distant stimulus. The perceptual field is, then, one in which action *is for the time being estopped and is favorable, therefore, to the abstraction from passage in the presence of structures which are irrelevant to passage. That such an abstraction should take place in terms of a "now," i.e., that which has the date of the organism, implies that that which is the inside of the perceptual object should be a content which has been in some sense excited within the organism. It is the assumption of what has been just state that this has already taken place in advance of the appearance of the percept of the physical thing. The second characteristic of the perceptual situation to which I am referring is its essentially social character. By the social character of the act I mean

(150) that the act calls out an activity in objects which is of a like character with its own. 1 have already referred to this as resistance, that the act calls for this resistance of things that it may itself be carried through. I have emphasized the co-operative process by which the organism maintains its balance, moves against the resistance of things, and manipulates implemental things. The resistance that it receives from things is of the same nature as that which it can excite in itself. As 1 have stated, this social character of the perceptual process is an abstraction from a much more concrete social attitude toward the perceptual field, such as we find in our unpremeditated attitudes of irritation or affection toward inanimate things, and which is still more evident in the conduct of primitive men and of little children. The more abstract attitude is evidently later than its concrete expression, and it is in its concrete expression that its mechanism should be studied.

I have elsewhere analyzed this mechanism and the expressions of so-called mind that arise out of it,[1] as it appears in human co-operative conduct, in conversation with others, in conversation with one's self, and in the significant symbol, and in the appearance of substantive meanings. What is essential to this argument in this analysis is that in human social conduct certain gestures, notably the vocal gestures, arouse in the individual who makes them a response that is of the same nature as that which they call out in those with whom they are engaged in co-operative activity. In vocal gesture, in speech, one has already indicated to one's self what one indicates to the other with whom one is conversing. One finds one's self already in the attitude of the other. It is this common response, excited in the organism, which is the inner nature both of the others and of one's elf. It is a mistake to assume that the self has projected itself into the other, for the self arises as an object in the same process. Solipsism is a psychologically impossible doctrine, and psychoanalysis has abundantly shown that we can apply the same type of judgment to the perceptual self that we apply to

(151) other selves. The stuff of them all arises out of an earlier phase of the act, which is antecedent to the perceptual object whether it is the self or the other. The validity of the perceptual object awaits upon the success of the act; the self as a physical object awaits upon the resistance which the distance experience of sound or vision calls for. We pinch ourselves to be sure that we are awake, and we grasp the other to be sure that he is not a hallucination. All objects are originally social objects, but in the case of inanimate things we have abstracted from all content except the resistance which is the stuff of perceptual things, ourselves or other things. They are all in some sense hypothetical until we get them into the manipulatory field and complete the act which the distance experience initiates. While in a perceptual world the ultimate test is the handling of what we see, we stop far short of this in most tests of the reality of things. We depend upon the substantive meanings of what we see, that is, upon the universalized social responses, which implicate experimental data but do not demand them. There is the familiar illustration of the bank that remains solvent when its gold reserve is stolen as long as the theft remains undiscovered.

The perceptual object is, then, there as a distance experience whose physical reality as a resistance is of the same nature as that taking place in contact experience. In the manipulatory area it is there as a perceptual reality because it is the successful completion of the act incited by the distance stimulus. It is there as a mediate implemental object. The beginnings of the act are presupposed by this mediate field and involve an already aroused tendency to move toward or away from the distance stimulus, together with inhibition of these tendencies owing to alternative completions of the act. Beyond this mediate field of perceptual physical things lies the ultimate completion of the act in consummation, which is an experience that referred to the perceptual object but transcends its physical perceptual character. The perceptual object is there over against the organism as a physical object. This situation is referred to as a perspective. The relationship of the perceptual

(152) field and the organism in the perspective is social, i.e., there has been excited in the organism that response of the object which the act of the organism tends to call out. Through taking this attitude of the object, such as that of resistance, the organism is in the way of calling out its own further response to the object and thus becomes an object. In the case of objects beyond the manipulatory area this resistance comes as an implication of the other characters of the object and is therefore hypothetical, awaiting contact for its realization, but we see it as having this provisional resistance. Resistance belongs to the organism and its manipulatory area and has the temporal character of the " now." In so far, then, as the organism does take the resistant attitude of the distant object, the object is brought within the temporal phase of the "now." It is no longer temporally distant, though it continues to be spatially distant. In the perceptual world whatever is existent is in a "now" and has the resistant character of matter. It is only by an abstraction that we speak of the color or sound or fragrance of the object as existing apart from the object, or of the experiences of the organism, as in consummation. I am, of course, referring only to the perceptual world. What I am maintaining is that it is through this fundamental social process that this temporal character of the "now" is spread out into a present nature, and with this comes the separation of space and time.

I have spoken of the perspective in its relation to the individual organism, but, as I indicated at the opening of the paper, the social individual is already in a perspective which belongs to the community within which his self has arisen. He has become a self by responding to himself in the attitudes of other selves. This involves the assumption of the community attitudes where all speak with one voice in the organization of social conduct. The whole process of thinking is the inner conversation going on between this generalized other and the individual. The perspective of the individual is, therefore, that of the social act-an act which is inclusive of the act of the individual but extends beyond it. The individual in assuming the

(153) attitude of the others assumes attitudes that are adjusted to his own particular response. In so far as these different attitudes of the others call for an identical response of his own, the organization of the social act is reflected into his act. The community speaks to him with an identical voice, but each speaks from a different standpoint, and yet these standpoints are interrelated within the co-operative social activity, and the individual in assuming the attitude of one finds himself by the character of the response implicated in the responses of the others. In this fashion the individual attains the universality of the community response, which may involve the responses of an indefinite number of individuals, and yet it is a universalized attitude which is specifically related to his individual conduct - it lies within his perspective. 1 wish to emphasize what 1 have already stated: the appearance of the self is antedated by the tendencies to take the attitudes of the others, so that the existence of the others is not a reflection of his self-experiences into other individuals. The others are not relative to his self, but his self and the others are relative to the perspective of his social organism. Whatever metaphysical difficulties the conception may present, it is one which we constantly use in biography and history. The individual and the society are selectively and causally determinative of the environment, and this determines the individual or the society-neither can be explained in terms of the other except as the other is determined by it. The attempt to proceed otherwise leads to an impossible solipsism or to an equally impossible determinism.


  1. See esp. Mind, Self, and Society.

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